Tramping in New Zealand: Things we wished we knew before and what worked for us

This is definitely a very late post about our hike in New Zealand (NZ) last September 2015. After hiking around Mt Robson in Canada, BC, this hike in NZ paled a little in comparison. Perhaps due to the selection of the hike. We set out to hike Routeburn and Rees Dart initially but heard about some flooding in parts of the track so decided against that. We decided on Greenstone and Caples instead, which is around the area of Routeburn.

The closest town which from the track is Glenorchy. However, we went with Wanaka and glad we did. It is a beautiful small town close to Queenstown. Queenstown can be quite ‘touristy’ and that wasn’t what we were looking for. It is about a 2 hours and 30 minutes drive from Wanaka to Kinloch.

We stayed at an Airbnb place in Wanaka before we started the hike and again after our hike. The house we found before our hike:

View from the house.
An area of the balcony
Love the roof of the living room.
Dining and kitchenette

We slept in, of course, after an early arrival in Christchurch earlier that morning (from Melbourne). We left the apartment only about midday and had brunch at a cafe, called Kai Whakapai on the corner of the street along Ardmore and Helwick St, which later became our favourite cafe to dine at on our return to Wanaka.

Our late departure meant that we would arrive at our next destination close to sunset or past sunset. The drive from Wanaka to Kinloch was beautiful!

En route from Glenorchy to Kinloch.

We drove towards Kinloch which we’d intended to camp at. Our intent wasn’t strong enough to withstand the strong and chilly winds when we arrived at the campsite and noted that a lodge was just on the opposite side.

The drive to Kinloch
I see blue…

So we deliberated on whether we should set up camp at the Kinloch campsite, or at the lodge where it’s warmer and we get to have a last proper shower and bathroom before our hike. We went with the lodge. It was expensive for a ‘master bedroom’. The room was cozy with a double bed taking up almost the entire area and a heritage bathroom. We had dinner after we checked in. I had the mussels soup and it was delicious. 

We set out right away in the morning and drove towards the carpark of Greenstone and Caples from the lodge. Parts of the road was flooded due to both rain and melting snow since it was spring when were there.

We started the hike from the carpark and that was when the hike first went wrong… we took a wrong turn when we followed a runner up the road into some farm instead of heading straight. That route took us back about 1.5 days on the hike as it was a detour around Lake Rere instead of heading directly down Greenstone. As such, the longer walk took its tolls psychologically.

Beginning our hike…and little did we know at that time that we were heading down the wrong path!
From roadend to Greenstone and a detour around Lake Rere.

What we should have done was to head straight down the path instead of turning towards the bridge and going across it towards Lake Rere. Some guides we’ve read mostly start off from Caples and ending at Greenstone.

We went along path towards Elfin Bay, down Lake Rere and that set us back about 1 day. The duration for Greenstone track as estimated in the Lonely Planet ‘Tramping in New Zealand’ book is stated as 3 days and 2 days for Caples track. I believe we did take about 4.5 days or 5 days on the track. The total distance was about 60km. There were a few hikers who went through Caples first and then Greenstone. We found that Greenstone route towards Caples may be easier as you start gradually and gently and end off climbing and descending down Caples towards the end.

We camped along the Greenstone River on our first night and it was the best campsite for the entire hike.

This is the beginning of our hike along the Greenstone track.
The first campsite along Greenstone River, near Slip Flat Hut, if I recall correctly.
Greenstone River – Day 1 campsite near Slip Flat Hut (if I recalled correctly)

It all started going ‘downhill’ from Day 1. Day 2. Parts of the hike involved crossing large sections of marshlands at the river flats. We conditioned our eyes and minds to look out for the ‘orange sticks’ which signify that we’re still on the trail. There are certainly areas for improvement in having better marked trails on this hike. Or maybe we experienced the trails in Canada and are of the opinion that the campsites, toilets and trails in Canada are better.

For the not-so-experienced hikers, like us, distances are not what they seem. The distances on the signboards and the map don’t seem to be quite the same as when you are on this trail. We can be walking literally for the whole day and still not be able to reach our destinations by nightfall. We had to double back on a section as we had to set up camp before it gets too dark and we didn’t know how much farther before the next place when we are able to set up camp. The area which we were walking in was too windy and there weren’t any good places to camp.

We hiked back to the last place we knew that had a hut. To do that, we had to cross a very rickety suspension bridge. It was harrowing. I didn’t think it would have taken my weight with the backpack, much less going through that three times – Once over, back again and then when we set out again the next day. We set up our tent close to a hut that evening. The taps there didn’t work as it was pre-hiking season and also I think it was a private lodge, not run by DOC. It was probably near Rats Nest Hut. We gathered our water from the river down the hill from the hut.

We are sticky with having mini showers after our hikes each day and we like to be able to set up tent, shower and cook before it gets too dark. So we went through the ordeal of showering with sand flies lusting after unclothed skin. Of course the water would be freezing cold too. I have not taken such quick showers as I do on the hikes. I moisten, soap up with the green camping soap which we use for cleaning everything on hikes, wash off and towel dry, possibly all within 2.5 minutes. Having our thermal clothes at hand and struggling to put them on while our skin is still damp and freezing from the wind and cold water, while also on the look out for other hikers in the vicinity sum up our shower experiences while hiking.

The walk of the river flats.
The river flats with the very familiar orange pole.
Crossing the valley along Greenstone track.
Scouting the area for the next available camp site and realised that we had to backtrack.
Resting among giants.

We started out on Day 3 and stopped at McKellar Hut for the night. This is quite a big hut. As it wasn’t peak season so we only had another one more room mate in the same hut. The hut and the common areas are quite new and well-maintained.

Our room mate was a snorer … and boy did he snore… Another thing to note: Eyecovers and ear plugs are so important on a hike.

The McKellar Hut.
Setting off again.

We set off past lunch time on Day 4 of our hike. The day’s hike took us down along Lake McKellar and we decided to call it a short day and set up camp before starting the saddle.

This was M trying to get me to get out of the tent to watch the sun going down the valley. We were of course accompanied by sand flies.
Another part to look forward to on hikes – Dinner..and then getting into the tent and warm sleeping bag.

Day 5. The saddle is amazing as they all say. It’s not very high, at about 946m and the board walk makes it more comfortable.

Walking through McKellar Saddle.
The best part of the track.

We picked up pace after the saddle and went through the Caples Track within Day 5 to MidCaples Hut. Upper Caples was closed. During our Day 5 tramp, we decided that this was it. We are not going to stay any longer and pushed ourselves to Mid Caples Hut which seemed so close , yet so far when you approaching it. You could see it from a distance away and it seems so close…I was determined to get there. We met some hunters on the way and …some traps for animals. It was towards the end of the hunting season. In fact, we ended our hike the same day as the end of the hunting season.

Seriously, the sight of the bloody deer antlers when we arrived at Mid Caples Hut was quite the welcome. Seeing some sheep around the hut, was a refreshing sight of animals on our hike. Besides seeing some sheep in the beginning, we didn’t see other animals along the way. At least we don’t recall.

The hut was quite full that night with hikers and hunters. We chatted with a guy who doesn’t have a home, no assets and liabilities and just lives in huts, while growing his ‘sprouts’ in his bag… That was an interesting story. We shared a room with some hunters that night and I was too tired to care that we were sharing a room with many ‘strange men’.

Sheep wandering outside the window of the bunk.

It started raining the next morning when we were setting out on Day 6 and last day of our hike. We planned to hike back to the car park within the same day. After waiting for the rain to subside, we set out in rain, not wishing to delay our return any longer.

We got really drenched outside and inside our raincoats. It wasn’t pleasant. We were perspiring within and wet on the outside. The hike back to the car park in the rain was a blur. We didn’t stop for meals and just stopped briefly to rest while we munched on our trail mix. We reached the car park by 1pm or so, changed into dry clothes from the car and drove back down Kinloch to Wanaka, all the while smelling our own stink.

Our Airbnb at Wanaka this time beat the first Airbnb we stayed at in Wanaka. It is a piece of big property with two houses, separated by a door. It isn’t big but comfortable.

We really pigged out on Turkish wraps we bought from the town.

Relaxing in the living room.
The tree of Wanaka in town.

We stayed a day in Wanaka before leaving and driving back to Christchuch for our flight home.

Things we wished we knew before the hike: 

  1. Bug spray: Bug spray and lots of it is essential. We went during the end of Spring in early September. We stopped by the DOC branch in Queenstown and were told that there should’t be any flies or bugs around this time as it’s too cold for bugs…boy…we regretted not getting bug spray when we were on the hike. There were sand flies EVERYWHERE. Especially when you set up camp or stop. They buzz around you like the plague of flies. So please bring bug spray.
  2. More research on the route. That is so important especially when you have limited supplies on your hike.

Things which definitely worked well: 

  1. Shower bag: Folds up in a palm size bag and rolls out into a huge bag which stores enough water for two showers, cleaning of utensils and more to wash up.
  2. Foldable kitchen sink: So useful for washing up.
  3. Eyecover and ear plugs.
  4. Extra pairs of socks and underwear, for emergencies and longer than expected trips.
  5. A mini shovel: So much better than using the dark and smelly toilets. Just watch out for other hikers.
  6. Rab thermal pants: Love them.
  7. QV cleanser in a small tube: Convenient when you need to clean up without using water. You can clean them off with toilet paper. Small packs of wet towels are useful too.
  8. Trekking poles. They can be retracted into short sticks and pulled out to help you cross those marshes. Really useful for balancing on stones and tapping the boggy ground for ‘marshy traps’.

There are lots more to see in New Zealand and we will return for Round 2.


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Alicia C

Travel, cooking, discovery, outdoors, randomness...and experiences!

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